The Professionalization of College Football

Although college football teams in the United States have now “kicked off” the 2014 season, their fans are not solely focused on the field of play. In fact, controversy continues to swirl around the NCAA’s recent governance decisions to create a major league with a professionalized playoff structure.

The revamped playoff system was actually announced two years ago. The formal selection of a Final Four set of teams, pairing off and competing for the right to play a single winner-take-all national championship game, was designed in a manner that will inevitably focus fan interest and thus optimize revenues.

The NCAA’s more recent decision to create a major league, though, will serve to accentuate the new playoff structure. After all, by clearly defining the sport’s most successful teams, the NCAA will enable its fans to focus on developing allegiances to the relatively few colleges that possess legitimate chances of winning championships.

In essence, the NCAA declared that the 64 teams from the so-called Power Five football conferences will be permitted to operate autonomously and to compensate their players for the full cost of their participation in the college experience. In a limited gesture to other colleges, they permitted a 65th team that is outside of the Power Five (i.e. Notre Dame) to do so as well.

Some critics are complaining that this declaration will spell the ruin of college sports by enabling the encroachment of professionalism into an amateur game. However, these critics fail to remember that the sport faced very similar challenges more than a century ago, and learned to prosper after making comparable decisions.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the NCAA did not exist. In fact, there was no governing body in existence to regulate college football. Although colleges fielded football teams and competed for trophies, many of the players (quite literally) died of injuries sustained on the field.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned college officials to the White House and reportedly declared ““I demand that football change its rules or be abolished. Change the game or forsake it!” One year later, the sport began to professionalize its operations, forming the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). Four years later, the IAAUS evolved into the NCAA.

Similarly, American baseball underwent a period of professionalization in order to address a set of challenges that plagued the amateur game. For decades before and after the Civil War, ostensibly amateur teams like the Brooklyn Excelsiors illicitly paid superstar players like James Creighton to join their squads.

In 1871, just two years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first team to openly pay its players, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players created a formal league structure with a declared champion. Five years later, in 1876, today’s National League emerged to take its place.

So college football fans who are decrying today’s professionalization of their sport need not worry about the future. Throughout the extended history of such business strategies in football and other amateur sports, the teams and their players have often prospered to the delight of their fans.

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